When Race Jokes Became Unacceptable

by Geraldo Rivera | Apr 12, 2016

I remember when the world of slang race jokes changed. Back in a galaxy far far away, the USA 1969-1970, I was Co-Chairman of a group of activist attorneys called the Black and Brown Lawyers Caucus.

Under the aegis of the Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship Program for Poverty Law administered by the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Law and funded by grants and the federal government, we were legal services attorneys working in our various beleaguered communities to help poor people facing acute problems in places like Landlord/Tenant and Family Court. We were also political activists who monitored the numerous anti-war and civil rights demonstrations for abuse by police.

It was a heady time in which the "Movement" seemed on the verge of overthrowing the existing order. The Man was on the run. We didn't trust anyone over 30, although many of us were getting close to that demographic precipice.

Of the 25 or so fiery young lawyers, I was one of three Latinos, everyone else was black. We were brothers and sisters fighting the good fight, using the law as an instrument of positive social change.

Routinely, because we were so intimately engaged, we would refer to each other affectionately using the N-word. It represented our membership in an exclusive club, us against the Establishment. None of my colleagues batted an eyelash when I used the word, until one day late in our year-long run when we were at a meeting. During one of my rousing speeches I said, “C’mon N-words let’s do this!” only to be greeted by deafening silence and hard glances out of the corners of several pairs of eyes.

I never publicly uttered the word again. Further, I submit that it was that time, spring 1970, when what was appropriate in terms of race slang changed forever. The race lines hardened and the Rainbow Coalition was itemized. Now the rule is simple: If you are African-American you can use any race joke or slang you please when addressing your racial or ethnic compatriots.

Same with Latinos and Jews and Irish and so forth.

Call it political correctness or whatever you feel best describes the unwritten rule, but don’t ever go there the way Michael Richards from Seinfeld and Imus went there. Or the way New York Mayor Bill de Blasio went there the other night. Even though the mayor is arguably black by marriage, like me in the Black and Brown Lawyers Caucus close is not enough. Racial sensibilities are not horseshoes.

And with racial tensions more acute than they have been since the O.J. Simpson verdict, now is not the time to tweak folks in the eye with race jokes.

I have to go now. I’m always late cause I’m operating on Puerto Rican time. There I’ve said it. Please don’t repeat, unless you're Boricua.

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